Somehow this cat managed to get wedged between a garage door and its frame down in Flagler Beach, Fl. According to the police captain who helped with the rescue: “There was no damage to the garage door and the cat walked away on its own.” Good enough.
Look at this tiny little fighter pilot. This is the pygmy falcon, (Polihierax semitorquatus), Africa’s smallest raptor bird. Native to several regions in Africa, including southern Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, this compact killer only grows to about 20 centimeters long (a bit less than 8 inches), which makes it only slightly larger than a house sparrow. But don’t let this guy’s small stature and extreme fluff fool you – it doesn’t just hunt insects, lizards, snakes and mice, it also hunts other birds, striking them down in mid-air and ripping them from their nests.
And speaking of nests, the pygmy falcon sure knows how to live in style. They’re too busy dive-bombing the shit out of their prey to worry about domestic matters like building a nest, so they move into other species’ nests instead. In southern Africa, the pygmy falcon population lives and breeds in the enormous homes of the sociable weaver bird (Philetairus socius), the largest and arguably most elaborate structures built by any bird on the planet. Sometimes these nests will stretch 7 meters across and can easily weigh more than a ton. They basically look like someone threw a big, golden-brown haystack in a tree and it stuck. Sometimes they’re so big, they snap the branches and collapse all over the place.
Built like the bird equivalent of an apartment block, the sociable weaver’s nest can house hundreds of pairs of birds from several generations. They’re sectioned off like honeycomb with over 100 little chambers connected by a complex system of tunnels and entrances, and lined with plant matter, fur and cotton. They even have their own heating and cooling systems, with internal chambers retaining the heat to keep everyone warm at night, and the cooler rooms arranged around the edge of the structure to be used as a shady refuge during the day. These nests can be occupied for over a century before they start to decay.
Inside, the pygmy falcons can be quite sweet for the miniature assassins that they are, occasionally living in what’s known as polyandrous relationships, which means the chicks are cared for by three, sometimes four adults, including both parents. The reason for this congregation of babysitters could be for added defense, or maybe they just enjoy the warmth of all that collective fluff.
The pygmy falcons aren’t the only ones who take advantage of the hospitality of the aptly named sociable weavers – Kalahari tree skinks (Trachylepis spilogaster) also gather around their colossal nests, feeding, nesting, and basking in the sun. And a study conducted by Australian researchers earlier this year found that although lizards are one of the pygmy falcon’s absolute favorite foods, they appear to have absolutely no effect on the tree skinks’ population near the weaver nests. None. In fact, they report that, “We observed skinks on all trees with active pygmy falcon nests, while we observed no skinks on three trees without pygmy falcon nests.” WTF are you doing, lizards?
While it’s not clear why the pygmy falcons aren’t eating the Kalahari tree skinks to oblivion, it could be because they’re hunting and eating everything else, including the skinks’ other predators, so are inadvertently protecting them. If you’re going to be protected by something, it might as well be a communal-living puffball of death.
—Bec Crew / @BecCrew
A new report from the Living Planet Index states that world wildlife populations have been reduced to half of what they were 40 years ago. The population of wild mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish is down by an average of 52%, while the population of freshwater species is down 76%. No word on house pets and zoo animals, because nobody tracks that sort of thing, but those numbers are probably holding steady.
Adding to the ongoing wussification of the world, the Madrileno village of Mataelpino has replaced bulls with large foam boulders for what was once their annual bull run.
Spike’s greatest hits from the Droopy series
NO COOL DOGS ALLOWED
Chip n’ Dale were some dirty rodents.
“Like a piece of intestine with legs on it,” according to British naturalist and TV presenter Nick Barker, there’s nothing in the world quite like a Mexican mole lizard.
Neither mole nor lizard, the Mexican mole lizard (Bipes biporus) lives up to a third of its name by being a native of the Baja California peninsula in Mexico. Not a whole lot is known about this very secretive animal, but what we do know of the Mexican mole lizard is that everything you see here makes this little guy perfectly suited to a life lived in the dirt.
Mexican mole lizards live almost exclusively in a shallow underground environment made of loose or sandy soil, but can dig burrows up to 15 centimetres below the surface in search of food, a good place to mate, or just some valuable time away from all that desert heat. They belong to a lgenus called Bipes, which means “two legs”, and yep, all four species within this genus have them. These legs are extremely special adaptations – within a larger group of legless reptiles called Amphisbaenia, the four Bipes are the only species out of almost 200 close relatives to have ended up with them. At first glance, those rather disproportionately stumpy limbs might not look like much, but wait till you get a look at these very impressive digging claws.
Mexican mole lizards are so good at adapting, they once had two back legs, but got rid of them because they weren’t using them. We know this because when you X-ray a Mexican mole lizard, you can see the remnants of its missing legs poking out in its bone structure.
The tube-like body of the Mexican mole lizard tends to reach around 20 cm long and less than 1cm wide, and its scales are a rather pretty shade of pastel pink. And not only do these guys have scales on their bellies to help propel themselves through the soil the same way snakes do, but their bodies are highly segmented, which means they also move along just like earthworms.
If, like me, you think Mexican mole worms are adorable – just look at that face – then we have no problems, but if you think they’re creepy, let me put creepy in perspective for you. This is a caecilian, which basically looks like a Mexican mole lizard, except that it’s purple, has no legs, and looks like its face has been stuffed into a condom, nice and tight. Caecilians they move their segmented worm-like bodies around like, well, worms; they live their entire lives underground; and are only found in warm environments – all of which isn’t so different from the Mexican mole worm.
Except that when certain species of caecilians are born, they spend the first few weeks of their lives eating their mums alive. One newly discovered species of caecilian that engages in this practice has been named Microcaecilia dermatophaga (which literally means “little skin-feeding caecilian”), and investigations into the species’ behaviour in French Guiana last year revealed that the babies are born with little razer-sharp teeth, specifically designed to tear the flesh off their doting mother until they’re big enough to go out on their own and find less disgusting food. How great is our little Mexican friend looking now? All it eats is insects.
—Bec Crew / @BecCrew
The Lion Sleeps Tonight by Jen A. Miller
Visiting the abandoned Warner Bros. Jungle Habitat safari park in North Jersey
Hey, nightmares are pretty bad, but how about two nightmares combined into one horrible amalgamation of terrifying animals whose entire existence revolves around hunting and killing? Meet the spider-tailed viper, a strange reptile found in the Arabian Desert.
In 1968, a group of scientists travelled to Iran to collect a bunch of native species for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Among the reptiles they collected was what looked like a strange mutated snake. All bottled up and preserved in alcohol, the specimen, named FMNH 170292, appeared to have a large camel spider attached to the end of its tail. Further examination revealed it to be a peculiar growth that looked exactly like a spider.
It was the only snake like this that had ever been found. It was impossible to say whether the mutation was genetic, or maybe it was a tumor, or perhaps a reaction to some sort of parasite.
Four decades came and went, until 2003, when zoologist Hamid Bostanchi collected a second snake with the exact same tail ornamentation. Having examined it and the museum specimen, Bostanchi declared the snake a new species and named it Pseudocerastes urarachnoides. ‘Pseudocerastes’ means ‘false horns’, these vipers have horn-like structures above their eyes that are formed by a build-up of small scales, and ‘urarachnoides’ means literally ‘a tail similar to a spider’. Rivaled only by the rattles employed by the venomous pit vipers of North America, the spider-tailed viper has the most elaborate tail embellishment ever seen in a species of snake.
The spider-tailed snake is a desert species, rarely seen but found in the North Arabian Desert from Sinai and southern Israel, Jordan, Iraq, southwestern Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern Oman. Only Bostanchi had seen one alive at this point, so there was no way of knowing what the tail was actually used for, but he suspected it worked like a fisherman’s lure to attract the birds that hunt camel spiders. Makes sense, he said, because he found the remains of a bird in the stomach of one of the specimens.
A few years later, biologist Behzad Fathinia from Razi University in Iran decided to test Bostanchi’s theory. With a group of colleagues, Fathinia caught a live snake and took it back to the lab. They put a chick in its enclosure to see what it would do. The snake moved its tail embellishment exactly like a spider. “We were able to observe and film the [tail] luring. It was very attractive and looked exactly like a spider moving rapidly,” they reported in 2009. “After approximately half an hour the chick went toward the tail and pecked the knob-like structure. The viper pulled the tail structure toward itself, struck and bit the chick in less than 0.5 seconds.”
They also put an ill-fated male sparrow in with their viper and when the viper saw it, it moved in the corner of the enclosure, formed a coil with its body and positioned its spider tail right in front of its mouth for easy striking. The team concluded that it was not only birds that were caught by the spider-tailed viper’s spider-lure, but also reptiles and even mammals such as shrews; all were the likely prey of these bizarre desert killing machines.
—Bec Crew / @BecCrew